A reader wrote in to voice concern over the reliability of the ambulance services in Harare. We delivered the letter to Craige Turner who runs EMRAS in Harare, and he responds giving the industry’s perspective on the matter.
The understanding of the common person is that when you call an ambulance for an emergency you’ll get an immediate response. In Harare, the truth is far from that.
A couple of times this year I needed the ambulance to ferry a critically ill relative from home to the hospital. I called the ambulance and this is what transpired. To start with, they took ages to respond to the telephone and when they did, the first thing they asked for was details of my medical aid and so many other questions. This wasn’t helpful when I was so panicked about the health of my relative.
Once I had managed to give the details, I was then told to wait as there was only one vehicle functioning and I had to wait for the vehicle to be available. If you have a patient with a suspected heart attack, you might as well forget about any ambulance because by the time they arrive your patient could be long dead. I ended up calling a friend to drive us as I was too nervous to drive with a loved one who could expire on me at any time.
OK it is not always gloomy. They do provide critical services but it seems they are better for cold cases, the cases where you can afford to wait for hours. This gives them time to verify your financial situation and also to ensure a functioning vehicle is available. They also deliver a good service when you are being transported from one health facility to another, because they are guaranteed payment. The same ambulance that could not respond to my call at home was readily available when my sick relative had to be transported from the hospital to another facility. This is like a taxi with all the medical gadgets but it is not an emergency life saving service. See the difference?
Of course they are not a charitable organisation but profit making and providing a life saving service to a critically ill patient is only secondary. This is business. They cannot be criticised for that. One can rightly argue that they have to be viable and this is the way they operate to ensure they survive in the business world.
Not everybody can afford to pay for ambulance service but yet everyone expects when they are ill and require emergency treatment that if they call the ambulance they will be attended to.
I can afford to pay but they still did not respond. I thought to myself if this is what I experienced, what then would the average person experience. They need to know. I am writing this article not to criticise the ambulance services but to raise awareness for fellow citizens on what to expect when they call for an ambulance. The bottom line message is rely on your self, the ambulance, my friend, might never come.
Thank you for asking me to respond to the letter your paper has received from a concerned Harare resident with regard to ambulance services in Harare. I can quite appreciate peoples’ apprehension. Let me try and shed a bit of light on the problem.
1. As most people I think are aware City of Harare, Fire and Ambulance Service is facing serious capacity constraints. Sometimes as few as three or four ambulances may be available to service the whole city. They need a fleet of somewhere in the region of 40 to cater for the city’s needs. Because of diminished capacity private services are getting called upon more frequently.
2. The remaining services, EMRAS, NETSTAR, Rock Foundation, MARS and St John Ambulance are therefore carrying the load. St John Ambulance only has one ambulance on line at any given time and MARS appears to have reduced capacity.
The result of this is, as the writer experienced, that on occasion we, NETSTAR, MARS and Rock Foundation might have no ambulances available as all units may already be servicing other calls.
Speaking specifically for EMRAS and having ourselves identified this problem we have further increased our ambulances ‘on line’ in Harare from five to six during peak hours. This will be increased further in the next month with the arrival of new ambulances being imported from South Africa. We have ordered and paid for five more ambulances from South all of which will be coming in fully equipped up to ALS level.
As regards medical aid details, this is fairly standard for all private ambulance services. It is necessary to enable services to bill medical aids for calls done .It should not however unduly delay response. In the case of motor vehicle accidents for example most services will dispatch units without medical aid details as we appreciate that it is usually a bystander who is calling and they will not have victim’s details. We and other private services make provision for non-medical aid calls on a fee for services basis.
Other questions asked are necessary and important and relate to the problem with the patients, so that crews can prepare to deal with the condition, address, for obvious reasons and name and telephone number of the caller to enable us to get back to the caller should we get cut off or should crews have difficulties locating the address.
Generally services can reroute ambulances already committed on less urgent calls to respond to genuine emergencies assuming the service concerned has the capacity.
Despite the writer’s unfortunate experiences ambulance services can and do save lives and they are certainly much more than just a taxi. Reputable services have trained staff and specialised equipment, which can make a huge difference.
I hope this clarifies the situation. We at EMRAS are constantly assessing demand and are, as indicated above, taking steps to meet this ever-growing need.
Craige E. Turner
General Manager (EMRAS)